Alan Watkins: Bin Laden: the Conan Doyle connection

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The Independent Online

It is by no means true that bad men (or women) are as a consequence reviled and hated. Dr Crippen was something of a folk-hero. William Joyce ("Lord Haw-Haw") was, at least in the industrial South-west Wales of the 1940s, regarded as a card who would sometimes tell the truth, as in his description of George VI and Elizabeth as "your stammering King and your bandy-legged Queen". Examples could be multiplied. In a remarkably short time, Mr Osama bin Laden seems to have joined this select group.

I do not visit licensed premises as often as I did but am a more frequent user of buses, taxis and supermarkets. Though there is apprehension in the air, Mr bin Laden is nevertheless seen as a bit of a joke or as a suitable subject for jokes. Last week a taxi driver claimed to me to have spotted him in the Tottenham Court Road, though I had previously been given to understand that those wearing Arab dress were more likely to be found in the Edgware Road.

The driver was making a joke. It is also a joke that Mr bin Laden is a member of White's Club. He is certainly not on the list of members, which I have examined. What does not appear to be a joke at all but sober truth is that several of his relations live in north London, up Cricklewood way, where they are greatly respected in the district, doubtless stalwarts of the Neighbourhood Watch scheme.

If Mr bin Laden is killed, stories will soon appear that, like Lord Lucan, he is not dead at all but living in Saudi Arabia, in Cricklewood or, like Martin Bormann, in South America, where he will in due course be discovered by the Daily Mail, only for it to turn out that he is someone else entirely, likewise equipped with a beard, a plausible manner and soulful eyes reminiscent of the late William Whitelaw.

The pattern is familiar enough. It is described by Sherlock Holmes:

"His career has been an extraordinary one. He is a man of good birth and excellent education, endowed by Nature with a phenomenal mathematical faculty."

Here Holmes is exaggerating a little. Mr bin Laden holds a degree in civil engineering. This would almost certainly be beyond the capacities of Mr George W Bush and Mr Tony Blair. Quite apart from anything else, they would not be able to manage the equations. That Mr bin Laden was able to understand them is hardly evidence of any phenomenal faculty. In other respects, however, the great detective is on surer ground:

"He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organised. Is there a crime to be done, a paper to be abstracted, we will say, a man to be removed...? The matter is organised and carried out. The agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught ...''

Holmes was not describing Mr bin Laden but Professor Moriarty, "the Napoleon of crime". A Conan Doyle was a great writer but that does not make Moriarty any less silly a figure. Ian Fleming was not a great writer but James Bond had to deal with several equally fantastical monsters in various adventures, some subsequently made into lucrative films. The destruction of the twin towers in Manhattan we had seen in other Hollywood pictures. As William Blake puts it, "fearful symmetry". Symmetry likewise with the villain, fearful indeed, heir to the fictional Moriarty and numerous even more implausible figures in the Bond books!

Mr Bush and Mr Blair still expect us to believe all this fanciful rubbish. As I wrote last week, there is not even enough evidence to put Mr bin Laden on trial. If he is captured and then put on trial, he cannot be extradited from any state in the European Union to any other state where he is liable to suffer capital punishment. This provision is in a separate Act passed by the UK Parliament. It is not something that has been imposed on us by European law, though it may be that the statute would not have been passed in the first place had it not been for our membership of the Union.

I have no confidence in the zeal of Mr David Blunkett to obey the law in matters of this kind – or, if it comes to that, in matters of a different kind. His recent speech, confusing "juris prudential" with "legalistic", no doubt through ignorance, is evidence of where his inclinations lie. Nor have I any confidence in Mr Blair, if it turns into a contest between the requirements of the law and the wishes of Mr Bush. I do, however, repose some faith in Ms Cherie Booth QC. Unless I delude myself, she would forcefully direct her husband to where his duty lay in a question of obeying the law.

Indeed, it is only over the supposedly manifest guilt of Mr bin Laden – which, as I say, is not manifest at all – that what used to be called the Great Powers have maintained any consistency whatever since 11 September. The most ludicrous proposition of all was that the attacks on New York and Washington had nothing to do with United States policy in the Middle East and elsewhere – or, if they had, that it was insensitive, ill-mannered, what the Americans call "inappropriate" to mention this consideration.

Similarly, and only scarcely less ludicrously, it was thought impolite to suggest that, connectedly, the attacks took place because of the extreme Mohammedan beliefs of their perpetrators. It was as if the assaults had come out of the air not only literally but metaphorically as well, undertaken by young men who were terrorists simply for the sake of bringing about death and destruction.

There have been changes in the past few weeks. Mr Bush has called several times for the creation of a Palestinian state, in which Mr Blair has obediently followed him. For the first time in many years I feel slightly sorry for the Israelis, who find themselves both surplus to requirements and on the receiving end, the bullied rather than the bullies.

Not so the Saudis. On the contrary: they are courted as assiduously as Mr Gerry Adams. Alas, they are by no means so accommodating. Only last week they turned Mr Blair himself away from their palaces and their mint tea. They could also turn off the oil if they wanted to, or charge more for it, as happened in 1973 and 1979. Everyone says they are now poor and need the revenues. But as Harold Lever once remarked: If you owe the bank £10,000, you're in trouble. If you owe £10m, the bank's in trouble. And if the oil goes, the war will look very different.